April 25, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Summary Judgment for Prison Officials in RLUIPA Sweat Lodge Case Vacated

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Yellowbear v. Lampert on Thursday, January 23, 2014.

Andrew Yellowbear is in a Wyoming prison for murdering his daughter. He is an enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and seeks access to the prison’s existing sweat lodge to facilitate his religious exercises. The prison’s sweat lodge is located in the general prison yard and Yellowbear is housed in a special protective unit because of threats against him. Prison officials refused to allow his use of the sweat lodge, saying that the cost of providing the necessary security to take Yellowbear from the special protective unit to the sweat lodge and back is “unduly burdensome.” Yellowbear filed suit against prison officals and sought injunctive relief under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). The district court entered summary judgment for the defendants.

The Tenth Circuit held that Yellowbear had satisfied his burden under RLUIPA to show his use of the sweat lodge would be a religious exercise motivated by sincere religious belief. He also met his summary judgment stage burden of showing the prison substantially burdened that exercise by prohibiting him from any access to the sweat lodge.

For the government to prevail, it had to show prohibiting access serves a compelling state interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest in this case. The court found the government had not met its burden. It did not quantify the costs it would incur in providing security to take Yellowbear to and from the sweat lodge. Additionally, prison lockdowns already occurred daily for nonreligious reasons, such as transporting other specially housed inmates to the medical unit. The defendants did not address this evidence so the inference that the prison would not perform lockdowns for religious exercise because of a discriminatory reason was not countered.

The defendants also argued that granting Yellowbear’s request would lead to a flood of requests from other specially housed inmates but provided no information to back up that speculative claim.

The court held that the prison also failed to meet its burden of showing its policy of prohibiting Yellowbears’s access was the least restrictive means necessary to further its compelling interest. The prison did not demonstrate that Yellowbear’s suggested alternatives were ineffective in meeting the prison’s goals. Showing that he refused the prison’s suggested alternatives was not enough.

The court explained that its decision was made on the basis of absolutes (no access granted) at the summary judgment stage and that the relative strengths of the parties’ positions may change. The court vacated summary judgment for the defendants.

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